Monday 6 April 2009

Linear Living

This post is about a man, an idea and a very long street.

“Oh what a tangled web we weave when in Madrid we try vivir”, as Walter Scott might have written had he lived in here.

I am writing about the tangled street layout that is old Madrid, but which also applies to any other large city that has grown organically, without any form of obvious town planning. Study a map of Madrid. Apart from prestige projects like the Gran Via, Castellana, the remodeled Calle de Alcala, and the regimented grid of the Salamanca barrio, the calles and callejones of Madrid owe very little to urban planning. In most of the City, Madrid’s streets followed the path of least resistance. And, as any lost tourist will tell you, it is a mess. A charming, lovely sprawl, but still a mess.

And that’s on the surface. Imagine the spider’s web of utility pipes, sewers and cables that are weaved below. Trace the lines of Metro tracks built, before the introduction of powerful boring machines, by digging up the street, excavating a trench for the line to run, and then covering it up, and notice how the sinuous they are.

Now line those streets with canyonesque slabs of apartments. A century ago this would have been a depressing place. Narrow streets that stank of horse manure and dwellings without sanitation.

What if the city had been built on different lines? No, imagine if it had been built along a single line. Think of one very long straight road with other roads leading off at right angles. Make the main thoroughfare wide, the spaces between the side roads large. Allow for lots of communal space, allow the sun to get in, and make it beautiful. That would be very different from the tangled sprawl that could easily describe much of Madrid.

One man had such an idea.

His name was Arturo Soria y Mata. He was born in Madrid on the 15th of December 1844. He was a Spanish inventor, civil servant, and town-planner and mostly self taught. Among his other works he was a driving force behind one of the first tram companies in Madrid, The Compañía Madrileña de Urbanización, and heavily involved in the creation of Telefonica, Spain’s first and largest, and now international, phone company.

Arial View of the Linear City (Right)

In 1886, following on from the works of the Catalan architct, Idelfonso Cerdá, who had been responsible for much of the development of the new, expanding Barcelona, Soria began to formulate his ideas on urban planning. Cerdá had been constructing rectangular city blocks, but Soria had another design in mind. He thought linearly.

A Grand Design (above) and the announcement (Right). (click on each picture to enlarge)

In a book he wrote explaining his concept he said, “The key to urban living is not distance but travel time”. His scheme involved the linear plan I have described above with a main road as a “spine” and with residential and industrial areas built along the perpendicular side streets. Ideally, some form of public transport would shuttle along the spine and so the daily commute or the trip to the shops would never take long.

His tram company, like urban public transport systems in other European towns, gave people the opportunity to live away from the grime of the inner city. Taking full advantage of this and in an area some five kilometres east of the city centre, work began on his linear city in 1894.

Oddly enough, the part of Madrid that actually bears the name of Ciudad Lineal, is not, because of reasons of topography, built to his original plan, but more along those of Cerdá in Barcelona. But if you take the metro on line five to the “Ciudad Lineal” station, you will be where Arturo Soria stood when the first stone was laid to put his ideas into concrete and brick reality.

Foundation Stone

Recently, on a bright spring afternoon, I walked the length of the linear city. After Soria’s death in 1920 the central street was named in his honour as the Calle de Arturo Soria and in 1992 his statue, made by the sculptor Cidoncha, was erected in the centre of the bridge where his road crosses the Avenida de America. Not far from that a newish Shopping Mall bears his name. This is a fairly up-market place, which for some reason uses old British Red Phone Boxes to house its public telephones. Being British I had to take a photograph of these when I was approached by a security guard and asked to cease and desist. Apparently, I am a security risk!

British phone boxes and Jamon Iberico In the Cento comercial Arturo Soria

It is a walk that is just a little short of six kilometres. I began in the barrio of Concepción and continued through the barrios of San Juan Bautista, Colina, Atalaya and Costillares, which were part of the original plan.

It might be one long street, but the different character if each section presents a surprise around each bend. Yes, bend. A perfectly straight road would monotonous. English readers think Milton Keynes or Harlow! And Soria’s plan allowed for a meandering waterway to border one side of the linear city. This waterway, actually little more than an Arroyo, a stream, ran along the foot of a steep(ish) escarpment that bounded the linear city to the west. This arroyo, which is shown on old maps of the city, has completely disappeared into a pipe under the M30 ring road. The escarpment though, is still as steep as ever, as a recent Sunday afternoon stroll demonstrated! Puff!

Since its inauguration, the Calle de Arturo Soriá has matured into an almost continuous ribbon of shady and leafy oasis along side a busy city road. Widened over the years until its present dueled three-lane carriageway, its grassy verges with an uncountable number of small, shady parks and playgrounds, the linear city provides a pleasant place to live, get educated, work and relax.

Between Colina and Atalaya barrios the roads widens to grassy lawns and sparkling fountains. Looking north, there is a wonderful view of Madrid’s new architectural attraction the Cuatro Torres, the four skyscrapers that claim to be the highest in Europe. You will notice I did not write the “tallest”. They are not, but due to the elevation of the terrain on which they stand, will at 236, 236, 249.5 and 250 metres, finish more than one kilometre above sea level and so be higher than any other buildings in the continent.

The Family - Torso of an Archer - Togetherness

But as well as a view of the towers, this part of the Calle de Arturo Soria also provides us with a small exhibition of modern sculpture. I am not sure I see any resemblance to a family in the one with that title, but they are still interesting.

However, there is no central tramway, although never-ending streams of buses do ply their way. The metro only hits it in three places and then only seemingly as an afterthought, although the central station does bear Arturo Soria’s name (Line 4). Personally I am not that sure that as a concept of urban planning, it actually works. I doubt the people who live along its length consider themselves part of the same neighborhood, but identify with the barrios they actually live in and which now stretch way beyond his original five hundred metres. And six kilometres is a long way from Cuidad Lineal to Costillares, two very different barrios.

Until one arrives at the northernmost barrio of Pinar de Chamartin, there are no really high apartment blocks. The side streets are quiet, leafy lanes of peace, where there are some interesting examples of architecture to be found. If I didn’t know otherwise, I would say that the hands of Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe had played some part in its design. In fact, it’s the other way round as Wright claimed Soriá as an inspiration for his Broadacre City. That too, has its critics. And the Madrid that has sprung up in the past fifty years is more based on Cerdá’s city block concept than the unending street.

Soria’s idea was that his linear city could be added to at either end, without increasing its width. This gives the possibly of creating, as has happened in Russia and Japan, which also took up his ideas, cities of indefinite length. In Madrid just a further one kilometre has been tacked on to the northern end to create the Barrio of Pinar de Chamartin. This is an area of high-rise apartments and hard concrete. By no stretch of the imagination could it be called beautiful.

Up to last year, this was a part of the city the magnificent metro had ignored, but it now has its own station (Pinar de Chamartin - Line 4). I was pleased by this. After six kilometres on a warm day, I did not relish the prospect of having to walk back!


  1. Great post as always. I always read something about Madrid here that I don't find anywhere else.


  3. a very good isight into the planning by soria ....very informative and vivid......